After several years as a "helping professional" and a lifetime of giving myself to others at the expense of my own well-being, I've come to realize that simply giving to others--no matter how popular it is these days to say that generosity is the magic pill for health and happiness--is not enough.
I've come to realize that how we give to others is just as important.
Through years of trial and error, this is what I've learned: Whatever energizes you is what will fuel your impact on the world.
In other words, the more something sparks you, the more you can contribute to the world by doing it! Doing what brings you energy is what will help you to give with joy, ease, and from a place of abundance... which means you'll have the capacity to help more people by doing what makes you feel most alive.
If I didn't know any better, I'd think that sounds self-indulgent. But from personal experience and from learning at the feet of extraordinarily impactful folks, I know how pragmatic and sensible it really is to make a difference by doing what you love.
And conversely, I know how unsustainable it is to try and make an impact by doing activities that deplete you - no matter how meaningful they may also be.
Forcing yourself to do exactly as Mother Theresa did - when in reality you were born with the gifts to be a revolutionary fashion designer who empowers women - is going to shrink your impact because you are not serving others in the way that comes naturally to you! Instead, you'd be wasting your gifts.
Forcing yourself to "do good" without also factoring in the context of what's uniquely energizing to YOU can lead to recurring burnout.
I've sampled many types of work over the past several years: retail, physical rehabilitation, counseling, nonprofit management, program development, editing, education. Every single job I've ever had has been in a role of service, whether as a part of my official job description or more unofficially as part of my own standards for being a quality worker.
And let me tell you: the most sustainable roles were the ones that I actually loved doing; it was not just the idea of them that I liked.
For example, I'm naturally able to play with ideas and words for hours on end without getting tired, so program development and editing were roles that I excelled in. And while providing direct service in the community was by far the most meaningful work that I've ever done, it eventually burnt me out because constantly interacting with people in overstimulating, urban environments is very depleting for me.
And when we're depleted, we're not able to give our best to the work or the people we serve.
The most powerful way to make a positive impact on the world is to leverage your natural talents and interests for the sake of a cause. When you are energized, it's precisely because whatever you're doing is aligned with your abilities and interests! That is when you are the most powerful!
So if facilitating group therapy for a gaggle of rambunctious kids is depleting for you, find what energizes you so you can support kids from a place of well-being. If you're absolutely obsessed with music to the point where it infiltrates every part of your day, use that passion to benefit others.
If your natural talent has more to do with developing theories and doing research, leverage the shit out of that by doing behind-the-scenes work for an organization you believe in. We are not all meant to be "front of the line" folks, loud activists, or direct service providers. Some of us - like me, I've come to realize - are meant to do the background stuff so that the services provided by folks on the frontlines can be scalable.
This was a tough lesson for me to learn. I've called myself a youth advocate and mental health provider for the entirety of my professional life, but only have I recently accepted the fact that I didn't have to personally work with youth and treat their mental health issues as a clinician in order to make an impact in that area. For instance, I could try on the roles of mentor, philanthropist, or writer instead. I could support the other helpers who are working directly with young people.
Now, some may argue that being a helping professional, and therefore being a de facto changemaker, is inherently exhausting. It just comes with the territory, you might say.
Um, do you hear yourself? That sounds absolutely miserable.
If we are not coming from a place of joy and vitality when helping or caring for others, how are they going to experience more joy and vitality in our presence?
I distinctly remember going to my very first therapist after being freshly diagnosed with depression, and he had promptly fell asleep as I was pouring my heart out to him. He wasn't able to hold space for me. And that kinda made me feel like shit.
I'll say it again: to be an effective helper or changemaker, do what energizes you.
This is the only way to truly make a sustainable impact. This is the only way to stay resilient so you can actually stick around long enough to help.
Now that we've discussed this insight, let's put it into action.
Ask yourself: Which work activities energize me? Which ones deplete me?
It may be easy to put your thoughts on autopilot, like, "Yeah, I already know that I love working with kids." Or, "I've wanted to work for this cause since I first learned about it when I was 10."
But I'm not just asking generally about what you love or what cause you want to support. I'm not asking you whether you like the idea of them, but whether you actually feel energized when you're physically doing them.
Just reflect objectively on how each one of your work activities affects your energy on a physiological level.
I've done this exercise on myself for multiple jobs I've had:
I now use insights from this exercise to make big decisions about whether or not to pursue new roles, and I re-do the exercise every quarter to make sure whatever I'm doing is still sustainable. If I find that I'm engaging in more depleting work activities than energizing ones, I'll prune the depleting ones and talk to whoever I need to talk to about increasing the energizing ones.
It's your turn, now!
Request access to the Resource Library below to download the full Work Energy worksheet, so you can start being strategic about preventing burnout and being the most effective helper you can be.
Above all, know what energizes or sparks you.
When you feel energized by your work, that is your body and intuition's way of telling you to keep doing it. When you feel energized, your talents, skills, and interests are all aligned. And when you are in alignment with yourself, that's when you can make the most powerful impact.